The Discovery of the Frescoes in the Church of San Paolo

Written by  Anna Maria Visser Travagli
An extraordinarily important artistic discovery will soon be restored to its pristine splendour.
According to Gundersheimer (1973), the Dukes of Este possessed the greatest extension of frescoed walls ever held by a single family.
But little remains of this once magnificent collection of XVth century pictorial art, most of which was plundered or destroyed during the dominion of the Papal legates, and - were it not for the discovery in the 1820s of the frescoes of Palazzo Schifanoia - there would be even less. Today, Ferrara's renown as a Renaissance centre lies in its remarkable architecture and urban design, which account for its fame as Europe's first modern city.

There is something of the miraculous, therefore, about the extraordinarily beautiful and well-preserved frescoes discovered in San Paolo's shortly before restoration began in 1991. The church, first mentioned in 1111, is the centre of a larger structure modified many times over the centuries. In the old convent complex adjacent to the western wall of San Paolo's, restorers engaged in a preliminary examination stumbled across a tomb from 1606.
Above the tomb they found a splendid XVth century Madonna and Child. A second space, almost entirely clogged with rubble, revealed a huge arch bearing late XIVth century frescoes of Christ and St. Peter. But a third space held the most astounding surprise of all.
Working by torchlight, the restoration team found a series of sumptuous and highly detailed frescoes: the first depicts Saints Cosmas and Damian miraculously transplanting a leg from a dead coloured man to an invalid suffering from gangrene, the second shows a group of gorgeously attired noblewomen at the burial of the coloured donor, and the third portrays the stoning of one of the saints.

The stylistic clarity of these scenes, in contrast with the contorted symbolism of the Ferrarese school, suggests a Florentine influence. The remains of San Paolo Vecchio together with the Renaissance cloister and the XVIIth century church constitute a dramatic architectonic complex, the reconstruction of which is the prelude to the future appreciation of the pictorial masterpieces to be found therein.